My friend Navin pointed out this online calculator to me called the “global rich list” – you type in your net annual income, and it tells you, correcting for cost of living, where you stack up to the billions of other humans in terms of your wealth. Navin and I both teach in the Psychology Department at SUNY New Paltz and make typical professor salaries for our respective career stages. Neither of us drives a BMW. But, in spite of this fact, we’re both in the top 1% of wealth relative to all others in the world.
This almost sounds like a cause for a celebration! Perhaps we should collect our small amounts of extra cash – along with several of our other middle class friends – and throw a party (without the caviar!). And, to be honest, maybe we will!
It’s long been established that satisfaction with one’s own lot is a relativistic enterprise (Festinger, 1954). If Joe, the elementary school teacher in the wealthy school district, is paid a very good salary of $180, 000, but all the other teachers in his district who started the same year as he did make over $200, 000, I have a guess about Joe – he’s likely very dissatisfied with this situation and perhaps with his job more generally. Robert Frank (2012) refers to relative salary as a “positional good” – something that serves as a marker of our status relative to others. And such positional goods seem to have a huge impact on how we see the world and on how happy we are in it.
This idea of happiness being so incredibly relative relates to the idea of the “hedonic treadmill, ” discussed by Diener, Lucas, and Scollon (2006), who provide evidence that people are continuously striving for the next great thing to make themselves happy. Often, people will say things like “once I get a job in my field, that’s it, I’ll be totally happy” or “if only I get into one PhD program, I’ll be set – that’ll be all I need in my life” or “If I make the varsity team, that’ll be so awesome – I’ll be happy for life!” From this perspective, life can be seen as something of a hedonic treadmill – once our immediate problems – that may seem like all the matter at a given time – are resolved, we are temporarily happy – and then the treadmill of life continues, and the next problem emerges – often quickly!
The problem is, that true long-term life satisfaction is not adaptive from an evolutionary sense. Humans, like all animals, have an evolved motivational system that pushes us toward outcomes that, on average, facilitate survival and/or reproductive success. Being “truly happy” – like wise-old-monk-in-the-middle-of-the-woods happy – is not very realistic. The hedonic treadmill of human psychology exists for a reason – ancestors of ours who always had some level of dissatisfaction were more motivated to turn up positive life outcomes (often associated with improving one’s ability to facilitate survival and reproductive success) compared with others. Resting on one’s laurels was selected against under ancestral conditions – and we are the products of a long line of ancestors who were less likely than others to show too much in the way of complacency.
A great deal of solid research on the evolutionary psychology of happiness conducted by Sarah Hill and others reveals how incredibly socially relative happiness is (e.g., Hill, DelPriore, & Major, 2012). Consistent with the work by Robert Frank, the research conducted by Hill and her collaborators tells a story of happiness as affected by one’s position relative to others in one’s social group. We compare our own lot not with the lots of strangers or of hypothetical others. Under ancestral conditions, when the human mind evolved and human groups were small and stable, comparing one’s value with the “billions of others who live on other continents” was not, at all, the kind of comparison that would or could have been made. But comparing oneself to the other folks in one’s band – particularly those who are similar in age and gender – would have been a very common process.
And our modern minds betray this fact – we constantly compare ourselves with “similar others.” Telling an employee that her salary is higher than that of anyone else in her position at the company (even if it’s not a ton in an absolute sense) would likely by very empowering. Such information would make that person feel an extraordinary amount of satisfaction. Telling that same person, on the other hand, that she makes slightly less than everyone else – but that her salary is in the top 1% of people in the world, would likely be a bit less satisfying. And this fact makes perfect sense when we think about it in terms of evolutionarily based psychological principles.